Passing through the endless aisles of Auchon on a Saturday morning a few weeks back, we collected essentials. Yoghurt and butter, milk and coffee, laundry detergent and Brita filters, salmon and steak. But when we got to the poultry case, a cellophane-wrapped package of flesh caught my eye. On a styrofoam tray 3 x 2 bundles of tiny birds, their feathery wings, thighs and heads tucked under rounded bellies. It was only as a joke that I threw these little guys into our shopping cart. Ben’s reaction was not what I was expecting. “Yeah we should try them,” he told me. Challenge accepted.
As it turns out, quail is not such an intimidating protein afterall. The birds are quite small and bony, meaning they cook up very quickly. If anything, the challenge is not to overcook them. Their flavor is slightly stronger than that of chicken, though much less gamey than duck, meaning that they can be seasoned in a variety of different ways and will never taste boring. There are tons of recipes out there for how to roast, grill, sauté and fry the thing. I went with braising in white wine, according to a classic recipe from Brittany.
As the birds come killed and plucked but not butchered, it is crucial to prep them before throwing them in the pot. This means – yes – chopping off the necks, pulling out some of the most stubborn quills and, if you’re squeamish about this sort of thing, removing any undesirable internal organs. I decided not to screw around too much with the latter, mostly because I’m really not confident of where exactly the gallbladder is located or what it even looks like and I didn’t want to accidentally burst bitter bile all over the otherwise sweet and delicious quail flesh. So better just stay clear of all that and hope it doesn’t explode in the cooking process. I did pull out some of the feathers and chop the heads off, though. This only took a few seconds and was relatively painless.
The other thing to remember with quail is that it is relatively difficult to carve the meat off the bones with fork and knife. After around just 2 minutes, we set all silverware swiftly to the side and continued eating the little guys with our hands, sucking the thigh off the femur and the plump and juicy breasts off the curved sternum. I mention this only as a warning: if you’re cooking for people you can’t be so casual around, you might end up with a room full of folks picking away, frustrated and hungry, at the tiny bird. Not the most cheerful dinner party.Next up, the birds are browned. I used my 5.5 quart Le Creuset dutch oven, adding some oil and piling on the birds in whatever shape they would fit. I turned them occasionally until the skins caramelized a bit but the translucent skin revealed a still-pink interior. Then I took them out onto a plate and rested them for a few minutes.
As the bird rested out the excitement of their first contact with the heat, I threw some chopped onion, slices of bacon and raisins onto the now quail-infused and very hot oil. They sweat and sizzled, burning up alongside the little bits of quail skin and flesh that had stuck to the pan. And as they screamed for more oil to protect them against the hot metal, I relieved them, instead, with a few generous splashed of white wine. The latter picked up the pan drippings, rehydrated the raisins, and generally brought peace to the entire mix. This would normally be the time when Breton grandmas would add fresh white grapes to the mix, but – alas! – I did not have these in my cupboard. I covered the pot and allowing the bacon, onions and raisins to simmer a while.
After a few minutes I added back the quail, this time topped with a fragrant bouquet garni. Another generous splash of white wine over the top, and I lowered the lid to allow the ingredients to come together and the bird meat to soak up all the lovely wine. Out of curiosity and fear of failure, I peeped under the lid a few times and rotated the birds to make sure they cooked evenly. After around 15-20 minutes they were ready to be served.
I plated them in white bowls, two for my man and one for me on a bed of fluffy buttermilk mashed potatoes seasoned with a hint of nutmeg. I’d recommend adding plenty of the cooking liquid, as well as the mess of bacon, onion, raisins over the top and to garnish with a bay leaf and sprig of thyme from the bouquet. With a bit of white wine, this is a fantastic lunch on a lazy summer Sunday.